It’s 1am the day after I started watching True Detective and not since The Wire have I managed to watch a whole series in one sitting. Admittedly it was much easier to do so as there are only 8 episodes, and unlike other popular American series that seem to be never ending with 20+ episodes, it doesn’t suffer from that lull mid season where your interest wanes.
The series is treated as an anthology – eight episodes that deal with one storyline and then move on to a different case with different actors. Going from this first season, this will make for a cohesive series that feels far more whole than anything that has come before it.
True Detective is very much a renegade when you compare it to any other series around at the moment. Instead of a large writing and directing team that have to piece together each other’s work to make a succinct show, it’s created by a two-man team: Nick Pizzolatto writes the whole series and Cary Fukunaga directs every episode, and this has benefitted the series no end.
The characters of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart are complex and, like most HBO offerings, they carry the show. Rust Cohle is a bitter, dark cop with a nihilistic take on the world around him. After meeting Marty Hart in the first episode, he goes into a horrific tirade against human existence when his partner Marty asks “What’s the point of getting up in the morning then’ and Cohle replies with a chillingly matter of fact answer, “Because it’s obviously in my programming…and I lack the constitution for suicide”.
It’s this fundamental difference between the two characters that makes their relationship such a fascinating watch. Pizzolatto’s writing of these characters is complex and the dialogue between the two of them is so well crafted that after each episode you’re left reconsidering your own view of them. Their imperfections and negative traits make you constantly question your own morals and gives you a real feeling of uncertainty.
Matthew McConaughey has received a lot of praise for his portrayal of Rust but Woody Harrelson shouldn’t be forgotten. Marty acts as the straight-laced guy to the philosophical nightmare that is Rust, and with his own demons he’s way more than just the partner. It’s the relationship between these two men that is what the show is truly about. The case becomes secondary to the complex partnership, as the two struggle to stay in the same room as each other, never mind maintaining a working relationship. Unlike cop shows before it, True Detectives is anything but a buddy cop series. It’s dark, twisted and visceral, creating an atmosphere of distrust for both the characters and the audience watching it too.
Michelle Monaghan deserves a mention for her part as Maggie Hart, Marty’s wife. She doesn’t have a lot of screen time but she manages to give a very interesting performance that is both subtle and strong. If there is one downside to True Detective it’s the female characters and their clichéd back-stories (mainly the damaged whore…) but Maggie seems to break out of this and becomes an important character in her own right.
It’s not just the dialogue and the characters that create this uneasy atmosphere; there are so many details that go into creating this palpable feeling. First there’s the music, a guitar score that builds up to dramatic thumping as the tension increases. The Sepia colour in any other series might be distracting, but in True Detective it’s used lightly and as such creates a disconcerting haze. Then there’s the landscape, the immense open areas of Louisiana with the spiky, splintered houses escaping from the dry grass that are completely isolated from modern society. It taps into a fear that most viewers would respond to, telling us that the killer could be anywhere, hiding in this vast open wilderness. By episode 4 Cary Fukunaga is really showing off his directing talent with an unforgettable six and a half minute tracking shot that is extremely well choreographed and goes to show what a talent he is.
The second half of the season is more about the case itself, with the unease replaced with tension and proper police work (now that neither of them are officially police). The ending is inevitable and unlike some people that really wanted a ridiculous twist, I liked it. Yes it was predictable, but the unmasking of the monster was horribly realistic and combined with the effect it had on both characters, was a fully satisfying conclusion to the series.
If, like me, you find a full-length series to be a bit of a long commitment, watch this. It’s an incredibly satisfying watch that’s better than almost everything on television at present.
True Detective is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 9th June.